“Red Rocket” — Houston Cinema Arts Festival Review

I was able to catch Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” this weekend at the 2021 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, with a Q&A from the indie filmmaker along with his wife/producer, and a few of the local cast members. What followed was 128 minutes of incredible comedy, amazing performances, and some great cinematography. It was an incredibly fun experience, and it was also very fittingly the Texas Premiere of the film.

Simon Rex stars as Mikey Davies, or Mikey Saber XXX, has been in the adult film industry in Los Angeles for the last 20 years. But once he falls out on hard times, he takes a bus back home to his Gulf Coast hometown of Texas City to shack up with his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother. He goes around reminiscing around his old stomping grounds and bringing up stories about his various films and experiences to anybody who will listen. And the whole time, trying to find his ticket back to the life he loves so much. According to Baker, Simon Rex was always who this movie was going to be made for, having experience in the adult film world himself early on in his career made it a no-brainer.

Courtesy of A24

What this film does differently from every other film about kids who want to just get out of a dead-end town and start over, this film goes to somebody like Mikey and people like Lexi who, when times get hard, they went back home to start over. And it also shows how hard it is to start over. Mikey makes several attempts to get a job locally to help out Lexi and her mom, but once they find out about his previous “experience,” they’re quick to turn him away thinking it would be bad for business. Something that shows that while sex work is an incredibly valuable industry in the world, it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth of civilians as Mikey would say.

But representation for sex work was also very important for making this film. There were even 5 different consultants within the sex work industry brought on in the pre-production process to make sure there wasn’t anything that was casting bad light towards the industry and sex workers as a whole. And that kind of headspace is something that has been important over Baker’s career “Starlet,” “Tangerine,” and “The Florida Project.” Making sure that films like these have been able to represent sex work in a way to chip away the stigma that surrounds it.

But while Mikey is sort of trying to start over, he spends a great deal of the movie trying to find his next way back into the industry. Because deep down, that’s what he loves. He loves being in the action, he loves having sex, and he loves making porn out of it. Maybe he’ll try and bring Lexi back into the game, or maybe he’ll see somebody and target them into coming with him. “Suitcase Pimp” is what he’s referred to, always finding a way to manage the women he gets with and finagle them into his world.

And boy is he good at it. He’s incredibly funny, handsome, and too charismatic for his own good. With a small bucket to pull from in terms of population, he finds his ticket back. A 17-year-old high schooler, Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who is about to hit her 18th birthday. It’s perfect for him. He’s even surprised how easy it is and expresses that with his neighbor/friend/ride Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). And that’s sort of how a lot of this movie is, it’s easy. An easy-going story with barely a hitch until the last quarter of the film. Mikey does very well for himself by selling weed out of the Donut Hole. Perhaps it could have been shortened a hair, but it was very well edited by Baker himself and well written with Baker’s now four-time collaborator Chris Bergoch.

What this movie does better though than a lot of the technical aspects of the film, is something that has been appreciated from Baker’s entire career. He is very good at using local talent around to help the films come to life. Crew is often limited, and the cast picked from the streets, particularly in the case of Lonnie and June (Brittney Rodriguez) who were found just flipping burgers or walking their dog. That in part comes from their ability to portray these characters, but in how Baker can direct actors who have never done any kind of professional acting before. And it helps not just fill the movie with people who look like they live in Texas City, because they do, but it just makes every interaction seem that much more authentic and real.

“Red Rocket” initially premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great reception and is scheduled for release by A24 on December 10 just in time for the awards circuit to start heating up. And for a few categories, it might just have a shot.

My rating: